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Refugees, Peace, and the Two-State Solution

By Rex Brynen - 20 January 2014

As the US continues its efforts to mediate an Israeli-Palestinian framework agreement, the Palestinian refugee issue has been much in the news in recent weeks. Some press reports have claimed that the US has proposed that Israel accept the return of 80,000 Palestinian refugees to Israel as part of a peace agreement. While such reports are likely inaccurate, it quickly sparked Israeli statements ruling out the return of any refugees whatsoever to 1948 areas, and Palestinian complaints that the US position will not recognize their “right of return.” Israeli and Palestinian officials have sparred over the former’s demand that the latter recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” — a recognition that, according to Palestinians, would imperil the rights of both refugees and Palestinian citizens of Israel. The two sides continue to view the issue through the prisms of profoundly different historical and moral narratives, with little common ground between them.

All of this has taken place, moreover, against the backdrop of deteriorating conditions for Palestinian refugees across the region. A combination of continued Israeli restrictions and Egyptian closure of smuggling tunnels has aggravated economic hardship in Gaza, where seventy percent of the population are refugees. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, almost one million persons there are expected to require food aid in 2014. In the West Bank, local UNRWA employees have been on strike for the past six weeks, causing a suspension of most basic services. The Agency, already running a deficit, can ill-afford to meet demands for higher wages. Most tragic of all, however, is the situation in Syria. Many hundreds of Palestinians have been among the over one hundred thousand people killed in the brutal civil war there. Over a quarter of a million Palestinians in Syria have been displaced by the fighting, and almost seventy thousand have fled the country altogether—most to Lebanon, where conditions for Palestinians were already poor. In the Palestinian-populated Yarmouk district of Damascus, the United Nations has struggled to gain access to refugees who are, quite literally, dying of starvation.

A mutually acceptable resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue has long been regarded as a necessary condition for any stable, just, and lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Given that, it is hardly surprising that the European Council on Foreign Relations assesses the current negative status of the refugee issue as one that strains the prospects for a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict.

In the coming weeks, the US mediation team led by Ambassador Martin Indyk is likely to put forward more of its own ideas on bridging the differences between the two sides on the refugee issue. What advice might one offer? Several elements seem key:

First: Build on, rather than jettison, past progress.While progress has been limited, there has been some. The Clinton Proposals (2000) and Taba negotiations (2001) offered some useful ideas on how to frame issues of residency and return, many of which were further developed by the unofficial Geneva Initiative. While Israeli attitudes have generally hardened over the subsequent years, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went farther than most in his willingness to express some moral recognition of the refugees’ past suffering. Equally important is the need to build on the growing amount of academic work and policy analysis that has been devoted to the refugee issue in recent years, whether on repatriation and development, compensation, or broader policy options.

Second: Remember that the refugee issue is above all else a moral and normative issue, intimately bound up with the national history, narratives, and self-identity of both groups. This cannot simply be swept under the carpet — indeed, research has shown that attempts to deal with it as merely one of material resources only hardens positions by generating moral outrage.

Third: Technical details matter. Any arrangements involving the potential repatriation of millions of refugees, and compensation for property seizures that took place generations ago, are bound to be complicated. However, if these issues are not thought through with some sophistication, there is every risk that the parties could agree to politically expedient arrangements that prove impossible to implement — thereby destabilizing the broader peace process. One recent Chatham House workshop of technical experts, for example, cast doubt about some of the prior assumptions that had been made about refugee compensation, while highlighting the importance (as noted above) of treating the normative dimensions of the issue as essential.

Fourth: Be prepared to stake out some positions the parties won’t want to hear. It would probably be useful for Israel to hear that the return of no refugees whatsoever is unreasonable — and for Palestinians to hear that recognition of the right of return or large-scale refugee return to Israel isn’t going to happen either. Israel needs to be told that it, and not the international community, is likely to be the primary source of any compensation funds, while Palestinians need to rein in their financial expectations. Recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” is probably too much for any Palestinian leader to accept — while recognition of Israel as the “homeland of the Jewish people” should not be regarded by Palestinians as being anything more than a statement of contemporary realities. Finally, Israel should not be permitted to complicate the Palestinian refugee issue by somehow trying to invoke the injustices done to Jews by Arab countries as some sort of counter-claim. If Israel has claims against Arab states for past abuses (and, certainly, Jews were forcibly displaced after 1948) it should be encouraged to present those claims to the states responsible, rather than trying to have these costs borne by Palestinian victims of the conflict.

Finally, even if current US mediation efforts are unsuccessful — and, it must be said, the odds are very much stacked against them — they could still be useful if they broadened the dialogue and debate on refugee issues within both Palestinian and Israeli society. Many Israelis need to think about the question, and their own role in the refugee tragedy, much more than they do. Many Palestinians need to move from thinking about absolute (but unobtainable) justice to attainable solutions that still meet their moral and practical needs. None of this, of course, would resolve the issue in the absence of suitable political will by national leaders. It could, however, make future compromise less difficult — and, in so doing, reduce some of the accumulated stress on any future two state solution.

 

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